When we think of renewable energy, solar energy is often top-of-mind. The sun is a massive source of energy that can generate clean and sustainable electricity, free of global warming emissions.
In today’s world, we see more solar-powered homes, office buildings, schools, and more. Many are making the switch to solar power thanks to the many benefits that come with its use. Not only is solar energy affordable, but it is also friendlier to humans and the environment than burning fossil fuels for our energy needs.
However, with the increased use of solar power and solar's many advantages, we still have production, installation, and end-of-life considerations - therefore, is solar energy truly sustainable? Are solar panels green?
In this article, we will dive into the world of solar energy and examine the environmental impact of using this renewable energy source,
Collecting the sun’s energy and converting it to electricity for home and business use can significantly reduce carbon emissions and help fight climate change. Before we examine the potential environmental impacts of solar energy, let’s better understand how sunshine turns into electricity.
Sunlight is a clean energy source that converts to electrical energy through photovoltaic or solar panels. The sun releases packets of energy called Photons. Photons are constantly emitted on our planet, generating solar power sufficient to satisfy energy needs for an entire year globally.
A solar panel consists of many solar cells. These solar cells made of silicon act as semiconductors. They are made with a positive and negative layer with other materials like phosphorus and boron to create an electric field. When sunlight hits the solar cells, photons or particles of light knock off free electrons, generating electricity.
More reading: How is Solar Energy Produced?
Energy derived from fossil fuels comes from natural and finite resources on the earth. To generate energy, manufacturers extract fossil fuels from the ground using methods like drilling, fracking, and mining.
Sadly, these processes have a damaging effect on the surrounding environment. For one, it exposes our water systems to hazardous materials and also weakens the ground, making it prone to natural disasters like earthquakes and floods.
Other issues arise when sourcing oil offshore or from the ocean. Manufacturers drill into the sea floor, which disturbs marine life and increases the risk of oil spillage.
As ocean tankers or pipelines transport oil through the seas and lands, accidental oil leaks and spills can occur, damaging our environment.
Power companies and utilities burn fossil fuels to make electricity, a process that releases toxic gases into the air. This contributes to massive amounts of greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide, which ultimately leads to environmental crises like global warming and climate change.
Because of the damaging effects of fossil fuels on the environment, many countries are switching to renewable energy sources like solar energy.
Fossil fuels like natural gas, coal, and petroleum are finite resources that cannot be replaced once burned. Solar panels use photons from the sun to capture enough energy to produce electricity effectively in perpetuity, as long as the sun shines. This is great because solar is a renewable energy that is naturally replenished constantly without running out. Here are some environmental benefits of solar energy:
With the burning of fossil fuels like natural gas, coal, and petroleum, billions of tons of carbon dioxide and other harmful gases are released into the air.
In the United States, fossil fuel burning accounted for 73% of greenhouse gas emissions in 20207. The emission of these gases contributes to air pollution and intensifies environmental issues like climate change and global warming.
Several studies have been conducted over the years to measure the carbon emissions of solar and other energy sources. Carbon emission intensity for solar panels and other fuels can be expressed in grams of carbon dioxide equivalent per kilowatt-hour (gCO2/Kwh) or tons of carbon dioxide equivalent per megawatt-hour (tCO2/Mwh). Lower carbon emission intensity means more positive environmental impacts.
According to studies from the US Department of Energy's National Renewable Energy Laboratory in 2014, the lifecycle carbon emission intensity for solar was measured at approximately 40gCO2 per kilowatt-hour, while that of coal fell at approximately 1000gCO2 per kilowatt-hour. In simpler terms, coal produces 25 times more carbon dioxide than solar to create the same amount of energy2.
The sun is the primary energy source for solar panels. With solar, we can decrease the effect of fossil fuel burning and lower emissions that come from energy production.
Water is one of the most essential natural resources on our planet. Moreso, clean water has become a scarce commodity.
For conventional electricity, water is an essential part of the manufacturing process. From extraction to transportation and power generation, manufacturers employ liters of water to produce energy. Although water used in power plants is returned, some evaporate or end up contaminated.
With solar, water conservation is possible. Solar panels need little or no water to produce electricity. This prevents hazardous chemicals and gases from polluting our water sources. It also preserves clean water.
The air quality we breathe can significantly impact human health and the environment. The electricity from fossil fuel burning generates carbon dioxide and other harmful gases like methane which causes air pollution and lowers air quality.
Also, these harmful chemicals and gases contribute to acid rain, which disturbs our entire ecosystem by lowering the pH of water systems and killing aquatic life. Acid rain also poisons the soil and kills essential nutrients needed for proper plant growth. In addition, these gases are major contributors to chronic respiratory diseases.
As we switch to generating electricity from solar panels, we can reduce the need for power plants that release dangerous air pollutants.
We have a finite amount of natural resources like oil, natural gas, and coal. With energy created from burning fossil fuels, we run the risk of running out of these resources.
Solar energy produces electricity more sustainably. It takes advantage of a free renewable energy source, sunlight, reducing energy prices, lowering carbon emissions, and relying less on finite fossil fuels.
One of the significant effects of fossil fuel burning is climate change and global warming. Solar is a renewable energy source that is free of dangerous carbon emissions.
With solar, we can create cleaner power and protect the environment from climate change. According to the US solar industry, solar energy has reduced global warming emissions significantly, to the equivalent of planting 2 billion trees.
Solar panels create clean energy, free of carbon emission that affects the environment. However, just like with most things in life, solar isn’t perfect. Using solar panels to generate electricity also comes with environmental downsides.
Let’s take a look at them:
During the manufacturing process of solar panels, manufacturers use hazardous chemicals and materials to clean the semiconductors.
The amount of chemicals used for cleaning largely depends on the size of the solar panels and the cleaning needed. Some of these chemicals include hydrofluoric acid, sulfuric acid, hydrogen fluoride, and so on.
In addition to these chemicals being released into the atmosphere, solar panel manufacturers risk inhaling silicon dust, threatening public health.
However, there are governmental guidelines that solar companies need to follow to ensure proper handling and disposal of these chemicals.
Solar panels require a high energy input to produce. The process of mining, manufacturing, and transporting requires a substantial amount of energy up-front. For example, processing Quartz to silicon requires other materials like aluminum and copper. The process of heating also requires high heat. For these processes to operate on a large scale, manufacturers need to use lots of energy from traditional fuels like gas, coal, and other fossil fuels, which release harmful greenhouse gases and increase a solar cell’s carbon footprint.
For solar companies to set up large-scale solar energy systems requires a large expanse of land, which they typically clear of everything, including vegetation. Ultimately, this can lead to the loss of wildlife habitats.
Water resources diverted for solar projects can also harm wildlife. Also, the construction of solar facilities can result in soil compaction and erosion. One way to reduce the loss of wildlife habitats is to construct solar panel systems on already existing infrastructure like parking lots, commercial buildings, brownfields, etc.
As we mentioned earlier, setting up a solar power plant requires a large expanse of land, which is completely cleared, leading to soil erosion. Also, improper disposal of chemicals used during manufacturing can lead to water, air, and soil pollution. The manufacturing, installation, and transportation of solar panels also contribute a significant amount of carbon emissions.
One way to reduce emissions is to substitute the use of fossil fuels like coal during production processes for more sustainable options like renewable biomass.
Solar is clean energy that undeniably plays a major role in saving the planet. However, the solar panel manufacturing processes may involve more environmental sacrifices than we think. How do companies make solar panels? What are the environmental impacts involved?
Solar panels consist of solar cells, a frame, a back sheet, conductors, a tempered glass cover, and other materials. Most of the raw materials used need to be mined and processed.
For example, manufacturers process Quartz into silicon. Materials like copper, aluminum, and copper are also mined. The manufacturing process also involves heating and treating various chemicals, which can be hazardous to humans and the environment.
To ensure workers' safety, using these chemicals requires strict regulations.
There is also the issue of solar batteries. Good high-efficiency storage batteries are required to enable countries with low sunlight hours to store solar energy. These batteries contain chemicals like lithium, manganese, and potassium, which manufacturers must mine.
Like most equipment, solar panels do not perform at their peak for their entire lifespan. As a solar panel ages, it produces less electric power, an effect called solar degradation.
Solar degradation happens due to a few external factors. Changes in the weather or extreme weather conditions can weaken your solar panel and cause micro-cracks, lowering electricity generation. Dirt and debris could also pile up on your solar panel, reducing its efficiency.
Depending on the solar panel manufacturer, solar panels can last as long as 25-30 years. However, ongoing technological innovations and improvements may last much longer than that.
Solar panel recycling and disposal is one central area of concern for several reasons3. Firstly, there are limited locations available to recycle old solar panels. Recycling them is also not economically attractive because there are not yet enough solar panels that are non-operational or have reached the end of life in sufficient quantities to justify the investment in recycling.
Secondly, solar panels consist of precious heavy metals made of silver, indium, or tellurium, as well as rare raw materials. Because the process of recycling is limited and complex, one reason why solar energy is bad is that such recoverable metals end up as waste in landfills.
In fact, according to the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA), by 2050, solar panel waste could reach 78 million tonnes5.
In the future, this could lead to a scarcity of these natural resources. What's worse, when these materials are exposed in landfills, it could cause leaching, where toxic materials penetrate the soil. For example, a silicon wafer is encapsulated with ethyl vinyl acetate (EVA) for protection. When incorrectly disposed of, it can lead to leaching.
Today, there is still much complexity surrounding the manufacturing process of solar panels4. The recycling process also seems to be cumbersome and expensive. This is also coupled with the fact that there is little external pressure to make any significant change in the area of solar panel recycling.
Solar is a popular form of renewable energy. However, there are other forms like hydroelectricity, wind energy, biomass energy, and so on. In this section, we will look at solar compared to other forms of clean energy.
Wind energy is also a prevalent form of energy. In fact, from various studies, wind energy proves to have less environmental impact than installing solar panels and large-scale solar energy facilities. Wind requires fewer resources than solar to produce energy.
Materials used in making wind turbines include steel, fiberglass, and iron which can be easily recycled compared to aluminum and silicon.
Also, the manufacturing process of solar involves using more toxic chemicals, which can negatively impact our ecosystem.
However, wind energy comes with its drawbacks. Wind turbines take up a lot of space and require using a large expanse of land1, which can lead to wildlife habitat loss. It also causes noise pollution for people who live near them.
In addition, wind energy may not be reliable as it depends on the weather conditions. If there's no wind, you may need a backup plan.
Read more: Advantages and Disadvantages of Wind Energy
Hydroelectric energy comes from using a turbine set in a dam to turn moving water into electric power. Hydroelectric power accounts for about 17% of the electric supply in the world8.
Hydroelectric power doesn't produce harmful emissions, unlike solar energy. However, it also comes with its drawbacks. To construct a dam, new lines and new roads also need to be built. In addition, communities living within those areas may be displaced. Dams are also expensive to build and may also cause flooding.
Biomass energy is a relatively new form of energy that comes from burning organic materials like trees, grass, agricultural wastes, and other biological materials to produce fuels, heat, and electric power.
When compared to solar, biomass requires less energy upfront. It also requires less capital to set up. However, biomass essentially has inefficient systems as there are few technological advancements in this area. Furthermore, whereas raw biomass materials are renewable, they are still burned to create energy, which can result in polluting emissions.
Also, unlike sunlight, biomass may not be available as there may be limited amounts of crops growing on farms to produce biofuels.
Overall, solar energy has a positive environmental impact compared to traditional energy. It lowers carbon emissions, reduces our dependence on finite natural resources, and helps fight climate change.
Solar comes from sunlight which is a great option, especially for people who live in sunny locations. Solar can also store energy even without access to direct sunlight. Manufacturing, disposal, and recycling still come with their challenges. However, new policies and technologies are developing rapidly to overcome these challenges.
Amalesh Dhar, M. Anne Naeth, P. Dev Jennings, Mohamed Gamal El-Din, Perspectives on environmental impacts and a land reclamation strategy for solar and wind energy systems, Science of The Total Environment, Volume 718, 2020, 134602, ISSN 0048-9697, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.scitotenv.2019.134602
National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) (2012, November) Life Cycle Greenhouse Gas Emissions from Solar Photovoltaics.
Yan Xu, Jinhui Li, Quanyin Tan, Anesia Lauren Peters, Congren Yang, Global status of recycling waste solar panels: A review, Waste Management, Volume 75, 2018, Pages 450-458, ISSN 0956-053X, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.wasman.2018.01.036
Malek Kamal Hussien Rabaia, Mohammad Ali Abdelkareem, Enas Taha Sayed, Khaled Elsaid, Kyu-Jung Chae, Tabbi Wilberforce, A.G. Olabi, Environmental impacts of solar energy systems: A review, Science of The Total Environment, Volume 754, 2021, 141989, ISSN 0048-9697, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.scitotenv.2020.141989
International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) (2016) END-OF-LIFE MANAGEMENT: SOLAR PHOTOVOLTAIC PANELS
The US. Energy Information Administration (EIA) (2021, July 2) Energy Consumption in the United States
US Energy Information Administration. (2021, January 6). Energy and the environment explained
International Energy Agency (IEA) (n.d) Hydropower Special Market Report (pdf)
U.S. Energy Information Administration. (2021). U.S. Energy Facts Explained
Jen’s a passionate environmentalist and sustainability expert. With a science degree from Babcock University Jen loves applying her research skills to craft editorial that connects with our global changemaker and readership audiences centered around topics including zero waste, sustainability, climate change, and biodiversity.
Elsewhere Jen’s interests include the role that future technology and data have in helping us solve some of the planet’s biggest challenges.